REVIEW: The Centaur’s Wife by Amanda Leduc

Heather is sleeping peacefully after the birth of her twin daughters when the sound of the world ending jolts her awake. Stumbling outside with her babies and her new husband, Brendan, she finds that their city has been destroyed by falling meteors and that her little family are among only a few who survived. But the mountain that looms over the city is still green–somehow it has been spared the destruction that has brought humanity to the brink of extinction. Heather is one of the few who know the mountain, a place city-dwellers have always been forbidden to go. Her dad took her up the mountain when she was a child on a misguided quest to heal her legs, damaged at birth.

The tragedy that resulted has shaped her life, bringing her both great sorrow and an undying connection to the deep magic of the mountain, made real by the beings she and her dad encountered that day: Estajfan, a centaur born of sorrow and of an ancient, impossible love, and his two siblings, marooned between the magical and the human world. Even as those in the city around her–led by Tasha, a charismatic doctor who fled to the city from the coast with her wife and other refugees–struggle to keep everyone alive, Heather constantly looks to the mountain, drawn by love, by fear, by the desire for rescue. She is torn in two by her awareness of what unleashed the meteor shower and what is coming for the few survivors, once the green and living earth makes a final reckoning of the usefulness of human life and finds it wanting.

Warnings: Violence, depictions of ableism, depression, suicide, pregnancy

Category: M/F, F/F

The Centaur’s Wife is an apocalyptic urban fairy tale. Interspersed with folklore interludes, it is a tale about a group of survivors after the end of the world trying to rebuild some semblance of life, while also confronting the various traumas that they’ve been living with for years. It’s at times a difficult book, full of haunting sorrow and ugly feelings, and is thoroughly gripping from cover to cover.

Most of the book is told in present tense. The writing is quite snappy, allowing the pace to speed along even when not a lot is happening. There is a feeling of intimacy to the narrative as it puts us so deeply into it’s characters experiences, and I get the sense that experience is more important than story or plot here to some degree. The story follows the remnants of humanity carving out a new life in the wreckage of civilization, but really the story is mostly about quiet moments that are emotionally impactful and communicate an experience or a feeling. It’s more evocative than descriptive, and more of a state of being than a narrative. Every few chapters, it is interspersed with short fairy tales which seem at first to be more aesthetically interesting, but eventually begin to show baring on the larger story, whether metaphorically and symbolically or by being involved directly in the plot itself. It was a very unique reading experience, one that felt almost dream-like.

This is an extremely character driven and emotionally driven narrative, and it grapples with a lot of very heavy subject matter from trauma and PTSD, to postpartum depression, disability and abelism, and broken relationships, just to name a few of the topics this narrative covers. It’s an emotional journey first and foremost that really makes you feel a connection to its characters, and it will leave you feeling raw and wounded alongside them each in turn. It can be a difficult book to engage with, in that respect, because it engages you so deeply with such troubling themes. Reading The Centaur’s Wife is like bleeding a wound. It can feel cathartic, but it’s also pain-filled and harrowing. I found it difficult to read much of it in a single sitting, as its exploration of the darker aspects of life and humanity can begin to feel rather relentless. While it does end on a hopeful note, it takes a lot of pain to get there.

One of the most praised and indeed interesting aspects of this book is its worldbuilding, which is heavily folklore in aesthetic quality. The various little fairy tales that are scattered throughout are beautifully woven, and feel exactly like reading a children’s picture book or a collection of fables. The way that they are more important to the actual story than they originally appear was a stroke of brilliance, building layers over layers of the mythos of the world that this is set in, a world that is full of magic that resents the presence and impact of humanity. There is a real understanding that nature itself is a magical entity, a force within the narrative that moves and shakes the world and the people within it. Of course a lot of the supernatural and fairy tale elements to the story can certainly also be read as metaphoric, since the story is really, behind it all, about trauma and wrestling with trauma. That symbolic nature that makes the whole thing feel unreal and dream-like really goes a long way to weaving what is very much a fairy tale for adults.

There is some sex in this book, and that sex is all uncomfortable, raw, and visceral. The main character Heather is in a new marriage to a man she feels disconnected from, and navigates sexual relations with him in a very dissociative manner. Some have criticized this book for scenes of sexual assault, but I think that this is missing the point of the scenes; rather than being assaulted, she is instead purposefully checked-out of intimacy, making the scenes read harrowing and disturbing. This is an extension of how she is navigating relationships and life in general, moving through each event as something that happens to her rather than something she is an active participant in. This take on sex will be both disturbing, and likely hauntingly relatable for a lot of people.

I believe that The Centaur’s Wife is a very good book… and also one that I found too depressing to really enjoy my experience with. It is a story of hardship and loss and trauma, and although the theme of survival is strong it is also cut with the undercurrent of pain. Worthwhile reading, but difficult to get through.

Have you read The Centaur’s Wife? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!

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